After 37 years of helping students, EMU's "Uncle Theo" retires
YPSILANTI — In 1941, 18-year-old Theophilus Elliott Hamilton registered for classes at Michigan State Normal College, a campus, with seven buildings and a student population of about 1,100. Sixty-three years later, 81-year-old Hamilton leaves Eastern Michigan University, a campus of 129 buildings and nearly 25,000 students. He officially retires August 7. That’s 37 years to the day from the date hired.
Known to the campus community as “Uncle Theo,” Hamilton has been part of EMU for almost one-third of the school’s existence: 11 years as a student from (1941-1955 with only a three-year break for military service during World War II) and 37 years on staff mostly helping students find teaching positions.
Talk to any teacher or school administrator who graduated from EMU and you’ll hear their personal stories of how“Uncle Theo” influenced them and their careers in education.
“Theo is a University treasurer. He’s the most beloved person on campus and most influential in terms of helping people live their dreams,” said J. Michael Erwin, director of EMU’s Career Services Center, and Hamilton’s supervisor. “No one can go out into the teaching community without hearing, ‘How is Uncle Theo? Is he really still there (at EMU)?’”
The answer was always “yes” but he now officially retires for health reasons.
Born in 1923, Hamilton lived on Tennessee Avenue in Detroit until he was 13 years old when his parents moved to the Ypsilanti area. He and his wife, Fannie, now reside in Ypsilanti Township.
As a development associate for education placement, Hamilton secured teaching positions for thousands of students in locations as far away as Africa and Australia.
One student “Uncle Theo” will always remember was a football player who was so excited about getting a teaching job that he grabbed Hamilton and threw him up in the air, just as if he were tossing a football.
“I really cared for students and they appreciated me,” he said. “I hate to give up those kids.”
One of the biggest changes at EMU, he said, was the increased number of black students. In his 1941 freshmen class, he was one of only four black students and one of only 16 on campus. Currently about 15 percent of the student population is black.
During his time on campus, Hamilton earned a bachelor’s, a master’s and a specialist degree as well as a K-12 certificate. For the next 12 years, after graduating in 1955, he taught music in the Upper Peninsula and Highland Park.
“They hired me (to teach music) at Pickford Public Schools (near St. Ignace) because I told them I’d stay as long as they wanted me,” said Hamilton, who taught there for 10 years and was the first black teacher in the Upper Peninsula.
Then he met Harold Sponberg, vice president of Northern Michigan University, who was “going down below” to become EMU president. At that time, Hamilton also “went below” to teach elementary music at Willard Elementary School in Highland Park where he formed a boy’s
choir of 130 third to sixth graders.
“They were so good, parents cried,” said Hamilton.
But in 1967, a phone call from Sponberg lured Hamilton back to his alma mater. He became EMU’s assistant director of personnel and the first black professional. In 1969, he transferred to the Career Services Center.
“He (Sponberg) said I had a gift and should be working with students,” said Hamilton.
In retirement, “Uncle Theo” will continue to have students. He will brush up on playing the piano so he can teach, start a senior citizen’s choir at the First Baptist Church in Ypsilanti and volunteer with Meals on Wheels.
“I won’t be home watching TV,” he said.
Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their career and lives, and to be better citizens.
Editor's Note: Looking for an expert source for a story? Check out EMU's Eastern Experts online at www.emich.edu/univcomm/easternexperts.